2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press

‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr

Fiction – Kindle edition; Wakefield Press; 260 pages; 2015.

Every now and then I pick up a book and within a matter of pages — or perhaps sentences — I know this is exactly the right kind of book for me. That’s how I felt when I started reading Stephen Orr’s The Hands: An Australian Pastoral, which was longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The mood of the story, coupled with the great characters and economical prose style, hooked me from the start and I read it in one (very long) sitting. I rather suspect that come 31 December, it will prove to be my favourite book of the year.

Life in the outback

The story, which takes place in 2004 to 2006, is set on an isolated cattle station, overseen by Trevor Wilkie, in outback South Australia. This is how Orr describes it:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

Here, three generations of the Wilkie family live side by side, not always in unison. Trevor runs affairs with the help of his wife, Carelyn, and his 11-year-old son, Harry, who is educated at home via School of the Air. (Elder son Aiden is at boarding school, but comes home whenever he can.) Also living on site is Trevor’s aunt Fay, her disabled middle-aged son, Chris, and Trevor’s father, Murray, a curmudgeon who owns the title deeds but isn’t prepared to hand them over just yet — even though he’s too old to be much use around the farm any more:

The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he [Harry] could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Tensions and tragedy

The story follows the Wilkie family over the course of a few years, during which everything seems to go wrong. There is tension — and later tragedy — at every turn, particularly between both sets of fathers and sons. Aiden, for instance, doesn’t see the point in continuing his education and wants to begin farming with his dad, but Trevor keeps insisting he must finish his final year or he will regret it later. Meanwhile, Murray, angry, embittered and haunted by the ghosts of the past, won’t relinquish control of the farm, even though Trevor’s been running it almost single-handedly for years.

These familial disputes are played out against a backdrop of ongoing drought (six years and counting), of ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debt, which makes the pressure on the Wilkie’s, in particular Trevor, almost unbearable. There is a very real sense of despair just hovering in the peripheral vision of most of these characters; they know it’s there but refuse to see it. Instead, they blindly plough on, distracting themselves with the routine of running a farm and trying not to think too much about the future.

And yet, with every farming family, the future is paramount, for it is the children of farmers who are expected to carry on the business and, unusually, in this case, there is one father (Murray) who is reluctant to pass his legacy on and one son (Aiden) who is desperate to do what so many of his generation do not want to do — to make a living on the land. And there’s also concern about what to do with Chris if anything happens to Fay, who is now in her 70s: should the family continue to look after him or put him in a nursing home?

Yet despite the drama that propels the narrative forward, this is not a heavy book. Orr writes with a skilful lightness of touch, punctuating his quietly subdued prose with understated humour and restrained emotion.

Brilliant characters

The characterisation in this book is its real strength — the story is told from multiple, mainly male, perspectives across three generations, and each strong, distinctive voice, whether it be an 11-year-old’s, a teenage boy’s, a middle-aged farmer’s or an angry, bitter grandfather’s, seems palpably real and authentic. You get a real sense for each individual — and you are either charmed or irritated by them. Even Chris, a “forty-six-year-old man-boy”, is given enough quirky detail  — a flair for taking off his clothes, a penchant for watching old war movies, a willingness to use the garden shears — to give the reader a vivid portrait of someone who could so easily have been drawn as mere caricature.

But, of course, it’s how the characters develop, change and grow over this rather turbulent few years that gives the book its momentum and its compelling, page-turning quality. There was something about this book — the all-encompassing portrait of one family living in rural isolation — that transfixed me from start to finish, almost as if I had accompanied them on this emotional journey, perhaps sitting in the farm truck as it made its rounds fixing fences or checking on cattle. I love it when you get so involved with the characters you forget you are actually reading a book.

Anyone who is a fan of the late American writer Kent Haruf (who is one of my favourite authors) will find plenty to like here, because the style — restrained and elegant — and the theme — of farming families doing it tough — is similar, albeit with an Australian outback twist. I was especially reminded of Haruf’s debut novel The Ties that Bind and his bestselling Plainsong. If that’s not an incentive to check out Stephen Orr, I don’t know what is…

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

Update 31 October: French blogger Emma, from Book Around the Corner, has also reviewed it.

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral has only been published in Australia, but UK readers can buy the (pricey) paperback edition, via the Book Depository, or the Kindle edition, via Amazon, for less than a fiver.  US and Canadian readers can only buy the Kindle edition, via Amazon.

This is my 44th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

A.S. Patrić wins the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Miles Franklin Literary Award winner

Congratulations to A.S. Patric, whose book Black Rock White City has been named winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The $60,000 prize is Australia’s most prestigious literary award and was established in 1957 through the will of writer Stella Miles Franklin, best known for the novel My Brilliant Career. It is awarded each year to a novel by an Australian writer that “presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

I got up at stupid o’clock this morning to finish this novel, which I started earlier in the week, and am so glad I spent a couple of hours this morning penning my review! Just in the nick of time, as they say…

You can read reviews of all the shortlisted titles here.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, A.S. Patrić, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Black Rock White City’ by A.S. Patrić

Black Rock White City by AS Patric

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2015.

A.S. Patric’s Black Rock White City is set in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in 1999 and tells a story not particularly common in Australian fiction — that of European migrants setting up a new life for themselves in a foreign land. In this case those migrants are Yugoslavian refugees who fled the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.

The story largely revolves around married Serbian couple, Jovan and Suzan Brakochevich, whose two young children died in a UN refugee camp en route to Australia. Five years on they are still grappling with the loss and their marriage is on shaky ground.

Running parallel with this story is another:  at the bayside hospital where Jovan works, an anonymous person is scrawling graffiti  (on one occasion in blood on the walls of the operating theatre), vandalising property and carrying out sick stunts (filling a water cooler with human fat, for instance). Over time, the deeds and messages become increasingly gruesome and targeted, with devastating results. But who is carrying out these horrendous deeds? And for what purpose?

But this is not a crime novel, nor, indeed, a mystery with any clear-cut solution. Instead it forms an interesting backdrop for Jovan’s story, of a man who has endured unspeakable horrors in his homeland confronted, once again, by the worst that humanity can throw at him. Even in the safe refuge of a peaceful country and an institution that supposedly heals the sick, he witnesses yet more trauma. And, once again, he simply  gets on with his life.

Strangers in a strange land

The story is very much what it is like to be a migrant, one whose first language is not English, and the compromises that need to be made in order to survive in an unfamiliar culture. Jovan, for instance, was once a professor of literature at Belgrade University and a renowned poet, but now he’s a janitor who is often mocked for his poor grasp of English. (He speaks Russian and German, too, languages that are not useful in Australia.) He has given up on that side of his life; even though he still thinks in poetry, he has no desire to write it or read it.

Jovan is an articulate man and he wants to speak to his wife. What stops him time and again isn’t the pain, it’s a feeling that talking makes it trivial. Not that it makes it real—it makes it small. The reality is clear from when they open their eyes to when they close them, perforating even that boundary almost every night. The death of their two children isn’t the erasure of two beings. It is the loss of God and the skies, it is the loss of the past and the future, of all their small-voiced words and their hearts. The only possible response is suicide. To survive they have found a way to live without response.

Suzana is also working a manual job — as a carer for a disabled woman in Black Rock, a well-to-do bayside suburb (hence the title of the book — the White City is supposedly a direct translation of “Belgrade”), but she, too, was once a writer. She’s now more passionate about words and language than her husband and has devoted a lot of time to studying English (by watching TV and reading), softening her accent and writing in her new language. She’s distressed that Jovan no longer shares a love of words with her:

She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia. And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him. How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies. How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being. And now nothing. He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.

Black Rock White City is also very much about the attitudes of others to refugees, even though so many characters in this novel — from the Brakochevich’s neighbours to the people they work with — are all migrants or the children of migrants. One of Jovan’s colleagues, a janitor with Greek heritage, is dumbfounded that Jovan, a tall, well-built man, is a refugee:

 “When you think refugee, you think black, brown or Asian. Skinny and small, because there’s never been a lot of food. But look at you. Raised by basketballers. Smiling like a fucking wood duck.”

Character versus plot

Interestingly, this is A.S. Patrić’s first novel. He’s an accomplished short story writer and can certainly write vivid, confident prose. His depiction of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs is pitch-perfect and he expertly captures the melancholia and purposeless drifting of suburban lives. But the overall narrative felt slightly uneven to me, because even though the malevolent hospital crimes thread is drawn together neatly at the end, it peters out somewhere near the middle. It’s almost as if Patrić couldn’t work out whether to write a character-driven novel or a plot-driven one — and the character-driven one won out.

However, as a novel about migration and displacement and of coming to terms with the horror of war long after the fact, it is extraordinarily good. There’s a moral force to the writing, which I loved, and despite the trauma of Jovan and Suzana’s lives, both in the past and in the present, it’s not without hope. These are people who are adjusting to a new reality, who still have dreams, who still need to make sense of the every day, who still carry pain but are learning to live with it. It’s a bold story.

Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

This is my 34th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

UPDATE: Congratulations to A.S. Patrić: Black Rock White City was named winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award a little over an hour after I posted this review.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Lucy Treloar, Picador, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 400 pages; 2015.

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is a superb historical novel that tells the story of one family’s attempt to settle — and tame — a remote region on the South Australian coast in the mid-19th century, and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

It is told through the eyes of the eldest daughter, Hester Finch, now a grown woman living in Chichester, England, looking back on her youth. Hester’s voice — well-bred, kindly, intelligent and full of regret — is the standout feature of this rather astonishing debut. From the very start she draws you in to her intimate account; it really does feel as if she is in the room with you as she confides her inner-most secrets and anguished past.

And the tale she tells, of a fine upstanding political family who fall on hard times and how they never seem to win back the fortune they lost, is a compelling one.

Black and white relations

A key element of the story is the Finch family’s relationship with the Ngarrindjeri people, the traditional owners of the land upon which they now have a pastoral lease. The Ngarrindjeri have lived here for thousands of years in harmony with the natural world, but Stanton Finch, patriarch of the family, thinks it is his duty to civilise them even though he firmly believes “all men are created equal”.

Indeed, he turns his belief into action, of a sort, by taking in a young aboriginal boy, Tull, who becomes one of the family (he’s especially close to Fred, Stanton’s second youngest son, with whom he’s closest in age), though he’s free to come and go as he pleases.

But while Stanton’s attitude towards the Ngarrindjeri is initially respectful and kindly — he is happy to share the land and the water holes with the very people he’s dispossessed and shuns any notion of scaring them off with guns (the prevalent attitude of white settlers at the time)  — tensions inevitably arise when Stanton’s herd of dairy cows (and later sheep) trample the grasses and rushes, and muddy the water holes upon which the indigenous people rely. Later, when two of Stanton’s sons are accused of stealing fish from a “pen” in the lagoon he lies to cover for them, an act that belittles him in the eyes of both Tull and Hester, who know the truth. It is but the start of a slippery slope, for the unconscious racism of the man (and of this two arrogant older sons) will ultimately lead to the family’s undoing.

A woman’s lot

Another, perhaps less obvious, element of the story is the role of women in society at the time. Hester and her headstrong young sister, Addie, are fortunate to be brought up by parents who believe women should be educated. But that does not save Hester from the drudgery of running the household when her mother, grieving over the loss of a baby and a drastic fall in her social standing, is incapable of doing much beyond getting out of bed each morning. Between cooking and cleaning, milking cows and making cheese, it also falls to Hester to educate her younger siblings, leaving little time for much else.

Later, when Stanton’s financial mismanagement becomes ever more ruinous, he sees his daughters as mere chattels to save his bacon: they can be married off as a means of cancelling his debts. (His sons can also be sent out to work.)

It is to Hester’s credit that she does not take the easy escape route by marrying the first man who takes her interest. Although she does eventually flee the family home, it’s on her terms, not her father’s.

A story tied to the land

Perhaps what I liked best about this novel is the rich and vivid descriptions of the landscape and the atmosphere of isolation and remoteness that Treloar evokes:

… the house was on a spit of land projecting into the lagoon. Around its feet the water glinted blue and the vapour lifting above the peninsula gave its sand hills and vegetation the appearance of a watercolour, as if it represented something real but was not real itself. […]
Everything stilled and sound and sight and the warmth of early sun resting on me were faint. There was just the low drone of insects and the higher calls of birds; even the waves, so loud the day before, were muted. All that space around me.

But among the quiet beauty of that coastal landscape there lies a kind of Gothic dread. Initially it is a fear of the blacks (and what they might do with their spears);  later it’s alarm over a neighbour’s nefarious behaviour; always it is the sense of entrapment that results from being so far away from “civilisation” (Adelaide is the nearest city) which causes fright, especially when medical emergencies arise — or young women want to flee the family home.

Needless to say, I fell a little bit in love with this novel, not only for the beautiful depictions of the landscape, but for the quiet courage of Hester and the way her story gently unfolds over seven eventful years. It’s a historical novel, but Treloar is careful not to reinterpret 19th century attitudes through a sympathetic 21st century lens:  she allows her readers to come to their own conclusions about the dispossession of the Ngarrindjeri people through the actions and conversations of the white characters in this novel.

And that cast of characters, it has to be said, is superb — each one well-rounded, believable and memorable. There are characters here that you come to love; others that you come to, if not hate, then dislike intensely. I was rather sad to say goodbye to them all…

Salt Creek won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year for Debut Fiction earlier this year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced later this week.

Unfortunately, it is only available in Australia. I’m hoping some savvy publisher picks it up for publication in the UK and North America, because this is the kind of book that would appeal to a wide audience and, indeed, deserves one. An audio book version is available, if you are that way inclined, otherwise you could take the plunge and buy the print version direct from Australia. I recommend Readings (in Melbourne) for superb service.

This is my 33rd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 23rd for #AWW2016.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Myfanwy Jones, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2015.

Tigers seem to creep into contemporary fiction quite a lot as metaphors for cruelty, sexuality and aggression.  In Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest a tiger stalks an elderly lady’s house; in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi a young man is stuck on a life boat with a tiger named Richard Parker; in Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife a tiger escapes captivity in Belgrade during the Second World War.

Tigers feature in Myfanwy Jone’s Leap, too, an Australian novel that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award. These particular tigers are flesh-and-blood real (as opposed to being fantastical or surreal) and they distract freelance graphic designer Elise from thinking about the death of her teenage daughter and the mess that her marriage has become. Every day she visits the zoo to watch the captive tigers for an hour. No one knows she does this, and she can’t quite explain why she’s keeping it so secret, but it becomes a kind of ritual that plays a role in her grieving process.

Tiger mother: teeth that crush femurs like breadsticks carry mewling cubs without breaking skin; mace-like paws employed in gentle cavorting. That excoriating tongue applied lightly to baby fur. Perfect strength meets perfect love. But even a tiger mother is only able to protect her young up to a point. There will be moments when her back is turned.

A grieving boyfriend

But this isn’t just Elise’s story; it’s also the story of 25-year-old Joe, another character who is grieving. His girlfriend, Jen, died three years ago, but he’s stuck in a kind of limbo, unable to move on with his own life. He’s living in a share house in Melbourne’s inner north and is passing the time by working two dead end part-time jobs and hanging out with his mates. He feels drawn to a colleague, chef Lena, who is of Ukrainian heritage, but doesn’t feel ready to begin a romantic relationship just yet. “You can be friends with a girl, right?” is his constant refrain.

Then an intriguing young woman — a nurse who works nightshift and, tellingly, is never referred to by name — moves into the spare room and he becomes smitten with her. They develop a friendship based on their shared interest in keeping fit — they go jogging together and he teaches her basic parkour moves — and before too long the pair become sexually involved.

Yet, just when he feels that he might be ready to move on, two things hold him back: Facebook chat with an anonymous person who knew Jen and is mourning her; and the nurse’s plan to make enough money to head overseas.

An easy-to-read tale

These two storylines are expertly intertwined to create a seamless whole. What ensues is an enjoyable and easy-to-read tale,  even though it felt slightly predictable in places (I guessed the link between the two characters very early on) and over-worked in others. I never felt truly connected to either Joe, or Elise, and their shared grief seemed distant and remote to me, almost as if I was viewing things through a pane of glass. In some ways — and I don’t wish to damn the novel with feint praise — it felt like I was reading the kind of book that might be a set text for secondary school students: it deals with big issues, is ripe with metaphors, has a strong sense of place but views the world through a kind of adolescent mindset and not a great deal of emotional depth.

But the book’s dialogue is pitch-perfect (the banter between male friends is particularly good) and the atmosphere of share house living beautifully evoked. It’s also very good at exploring what it is to be a young adult trying to find your way in the world, as evidenced by Joe’s fragile relationship with his own mother, who worries about him being so forlorn all the time.

However, what gives Leap a rather distinctive twist is Joe’s interest in parkour, a form of physical exercise involving running and jumping from obstacles, whether natural or human-made, without the use of equipment (I’ve seen people doing parkour on London’s Southbank, leaping from fences and park benches and climbing up walls — and it looks incredibly dangerous).  Jones uses the idea of “leaping” as a wonderful metaphor for having faith in doing new things, of living life outside of your comfort zone.

He has a notion, though. Jogs to the end of the rail  bridge and swings up and onto the orange steel girder. Easy to shuffle sideways along the fifteen-centimetre ledge. In a few minutes he is nearing the centre. It’s a long drop to the straggle of water. He pauses there, looking down, and things become so beautifully simple: you live or you die.

Will this be enough to win the Miles Franklin? As a portrait of grief (from two angles) and marriage, Leap is good, but I’m not convinced it will secure such a prestigious literary award. For instance, I read it about a month ago, and not much of the story has remained with me. In other words, it didn’t leave much of an impact.

Other readers seem to have liked it more than me. See Shelleyrae’s review at Book’d Out and Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Finally, please note Leap hasn’t been published in the UK or North America. I ordered my copy direct from Australia. (Big shout-out to independent book store Readings, which shipped it to me within four days of placing my online order for a flat $22 shipping fee.)

This is my 30th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 21st for #AWW2016.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

The 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

Miles Franklin shortlistEarlier today UK time the shortlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced.

The shortlisted titles are:

  1. Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
  2. Leap by Myfanwy Jones (Allen & Unwin)
  3. Black Rock White City by AS Patric (Transit Lounge)
  4. Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Pan Macmillian):
  5. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)

I plan on reviewing all the titles (provided I can get hold of Myfanwy Jones’ novel, which doesn’t seem to have been made available on this side of the planet). Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

In the meantime, check out Lisa’s reviews, which she has listed here.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be announced on 26 August.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2016 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Charlotte Wood, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 315 pages; 2015.

Like the beautiful image on the cover in which gorgeous flora and fauna hide the objects of captivity  — chains, locks, a knife and barbed wire — Charlotte Wood‘s The Natural Way of Things reveals the darker elements of society which are often obscured by our shallow obsessions with, for instance, sex, glamour and celebrity.

In a narrative that is both gripping and illuminating, Wood creates a dystopian world that doesn’t actually look much different to the current one. Here, women are punished for involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours in which they have been publicly shamed and their male perpetrators have got away scot-free.

When the story opens, we meet two women, Yolanda and Verla, who have awoken after a drugged sleep. They find themselves in an unfamiliar room and they are both wearing “stupid Amish clothes”. They are guarded by two men in boiler suits. Where are they? What have they done to be imprisoned in this manner? What can they do to escape?

What would people in their old lives be saying about the girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The answers to those questions are revealed slowly as we follow Yolanda and Verla (and the other women held captive with them) over the course of a year. It’s a brutal, often harsh existence, but there are chinks of light as the women reconnect with nature (Wood writes eloquently of the quintessential Australian landscape and the wildlife, birds in particular) and learn to forget their external appearance and focus on their inner strength instead.

Their back stories are nicely fleshed out, showing how each character came to be in her current situation — and highlighting how varied their sex “crimes” had been. It’s a powerful, often terrifying, read, one that alters your perspective and leaves the reader changed in some indelible way.

A story of sexual shaming

The book is clearly an intelligent and highly original response to our modern, switched-on digital lives, where sexual shaming, particularly via social media, has become normalised. This is how one character puts it:

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

But for all its exposé of misogyny, where there’s one rule for men and one for women, The Natural Way of Things is not a feminist rant. Yes, it bubbles with a slow-burning anger and it highlights the duplicity and hypocrisy of our society and shows how victims are often blamed for the horrible things that happen to them, but Wood is careful not to tar all men with the same brush.

The women in this story don’t come off lightly either. Some alliances are formed, but generally they compete against one another, and there’s a memorable scene near the end in which they all go crazy for goody bags (“they cry out and unscrew bottles and squish creams into their hands and press sticky gloss to their flaking lips with their dirty fingers”) that reveals shallow obsessions — with appearance, with shopping, with material possessions.

But the story is just as much about power and survival than anything else, and it should appeal to both male and female readers.

Visual novel with tightly controlled language

The novel is very visual (it’s no surprise that the feature film rights have been acquired by independent producers Katia Nizic and Emma Dockery) and the language, sometimes searing and blasphemous, is always tightly controlled, eloquent and delicious to read. Indeed, Wood is one of my favourite authors — I’ve reviewed  The Submerged Cathedral (2004),  The Children (2008) and Animal People (2011) — but this new novel is a sharp and unexpected change in direction for her, and I’m hoping that its popularity and critical acclaim will bring her earlier work to a much wider audience. She deserves it.

In Australia, The Natural Way of Things has already won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, to be announced on 12 April, and longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has been widely reviewed by Australian bloggers (see the Australian Women Writers Challenge website for links) as well as Simon Savidge here in the UK.

It will be published in the UK by Allen & Unwin on 2 June, and in Canada/USA by Europa on 28 June.

This is my 17th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 13th for #AWW2016.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

The 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

Miles Franklin Literary AwardEarlier today the longlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced. The prize is awarded each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

Unfortunately, because the new official website is so badly designed and so lacking in content I can’t tell you when the shortlist will be announced nor when the winner will be named. I can’t even tell you how much money the prize is worth to the winning author. I can, however, tell you who the sponsor* is, but I’ll be blowed if I’m going to give them a plug when the website doesn’t appear to have us readers in mind — it seems more concerned with promoting itself rather than the award and doesn’t even bother to name the publishers of each longlisted title.

Anyway, now that my rant is over, here are the books on the list in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my review in full and I’ve included availability information for UK readers:

Ghost River by Tony Birch

Ghost River by Tony Birch (UQP)
‘You find yourself down at the bottom of the river, for some it’s time to give into her. But other times, young fellas like you two, you got to fight your way back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live.’ The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure. For a group of storytelling vagrants, it’s a refuge. And for the isolated daughter of a cult reverend, it’s an escape. Each time they visit, another secret slips into its ancient waters. But change and trouble are coming — to the river and to the lives of those who love it. Who will have the courage to fight and survive and what will be the cost?
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text)
Western Australia, the wheatbelt. Lew McLeod has been travelling and working with Painter Hayes since he was a boy. Shearing, charcoal burning — whatever comes. Painter made him his first pair of shoes. It’s a hard and uncertain life but it’s the only one he knows. But Lew’s a grown man now. And with this latest job, shearing for John Drysdale and his daughter Clara, everything will change.
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start. At Hope, Silver finds unexpected friendship and, at last, a place to call home. But it is also here that, at just thirteen, she is thrust into an unrelenting adult world — and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.
Published in the UK  in ebook and audio book. The paperback will be published on 9 June.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Leap by Myfanwy Jones (Allen & Unwin)
Joe lives-despite himself. Driven by the need to atone for the neglect of a single tragic summer’s night, he works at nothing jobs and, in his spare time, trains his body and mind to conquer the hostile environment that took his love and smashed up his future. So when a breathless girl turns up on the doorstep, why does he let her in? Isn’t he done with love and hope? On the other side of the city, graphic designer Elise is watching her marriage bleed out. She retreats to the only place that holds any meaning for her-the tiger enclosure at the zoo-where, for reasons she barely understands, she starts to sketch the beautiful killers.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
It has been six months since Tess Müller stopped speaking. Her silence is baffling to her parents, her teachers and her younger sister Meg, but the more urgent mystery for both girls is where their mother, Evangeline, goes each day, pushing an empty pram and returning home wet, muddy and dishevelled. Their father, Stefan, struggling with his own losses, tends to his apiary and tries to understand why his bees are disappearing. But after he discovers a car wreck and human remains on their farm, old secrets emerge to threaten the fragile family.
Published in the UK in hardcover and ebook.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr
On a cattle station that stretches beyond the horizon, seven people are trapped by their history and the need to make a living. Trevor Wilkie, the good father, holds it all together, promising his sons a future he no longer believes in himself. The boys, free to roam the world’s biggest backyard, have nowhere to go. Trevor’s father, Murray, is the keeper of stories and the holder of the deed. Murray has no intention of giving up what his forefathers created. But the drought is winning. The cattle are ribs. The bills keep coming. And one day, on the way to town, an accident changes everything.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.


Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge)
During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s cleaning work at a bayside hospital is disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan the mysterious words that must be cleaned away dislodge the poetry of the past. He and his wife Suzana were forced to flee Sarajevo and the death of their children. Intensely human, yet majestic in its moral vision, Black Rock White City is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs now, of displacement and immediate threat, and the unexpected responses of two refugees as they try to reclaim their dreams. It is a breathtaking roar of energy that explores the immigrant experience with ferocity, beauty and humour.
This book is available in the UK in ebook; the paperback edition can be purchased direct from the publisher.


Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Pan MacMillan Australia)
Salt Creek, 1855, lies at the far reaches of the remote, beautiful and inhospitable coastal region, the Coorong, in the new province of South Australia. The area, just opened to graziers willing to chance their luck, becomes home to Stanton Finch and his large family, including fifteen-year-old Hester Finch. Once wealthy political activists, the Finch family has fallen on hard times. Cut adrift from the polite society they were raised to be part of, Hester and her siblings make connections where they can: with the few travellers that pass along the nearby stock route – among them a young artist, Charles – and the Ngarrindjeri people they have dispossessed. Over the years that pass, and Aboriginal boy, Tully, at first a friend, becomes part of the family. Stanton’s attempts to tame the harsh landscape bring ruin to the Ngarrindjeri people’s homes and livelihoods, and unleash a chain of events that will tear the family asunder. As Hester witnesses the destruction of the Ngarrindjeri’s subtle culture and the ideals that her family once held so close, she begins to wonder what civilization is. Was it for this life and this world that she was educated?
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue, but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.
Only published in Australia; due to be published in the UK on 2 June.

Note that Lisa Hill has a round-up post, including links to reviews, on her blog AnzLitLovers.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

* Update on 6 April: I now realise this isn’t the sponsor, but the trustee of the award, but my point about self-promotion still stands.